Monday, November 10, 2014

Intelligence (Identity Series)

On Intelligence

Identity Series Continued

This is a bit out of order, but in some ways this post is easier to write. Intelligence is more difficult to define than things such as introversion/extroversion or sexuality, which gives more wiggle room as we discuss behaviors surrounding it. It can also be less controversial, which may be good.

A Tautology:

If you teach a child under 15 a second language, they will know a second language.

This takes language as a skill requirement. Any individual without serious brain damage we have to assume is capable of speaking a second language by the age of 15. (If anyone doubts this, I can expand further.) Second language attainment is often seen as a mark of education and I argue that pretty much any other academic discourse, whether math or science or logic (etc.), must be seen as within the same ballpark as language acquisition. To learn math or chemistry is to learn a discourse. It is to learn how to apply that discourse appropriately, and in a way not wholly different than language use. There are obvious differences, but as far as capacity to perform such skills or knowledge sets they are seemingly similar.

Malcolm Gladwell gets criticized often, perhaps fairly, but one of his main messages from Outliers rings true with me, and I read that as a similar tautology:

If you teach a child under 18 to be an excellent violinist, they will be an excellent violinist.

Meaning that requisite skill attainment of playing violin, at least to the point that you and me are unlikely to be able to tell that they are not "highly proficient", is capable of being taught to any individual. Such an idea is irregardless of any “musical ability” that we think somehow inheres within genetic structures. (Also see John Shenk, The Genius in us all.)

A counterargument is that the amount of work, the amount of environmental finesse we would have to engage in to get such an individual to learn a second language by the age of 15 or to be truly excellent on the violin may mean that we would be unable to teach them basic algebra, because we would be spending so much time pounding a second language into such individuals. This is one designation of intelligence after all, that there are marked differences in knowledge or skill attainment. And it would make sense that some individuals could acquire a certain amount of skills faster than others. Perhaps we can create true excellence in one skill sphere in any individual but only to the detriment of another. In the end, such a claim is true about every individual, and about why we find benefits in the divided skill accomplishments among a community. One can be a well-rounded but ready to specialize 20-year-old, but in the end, even if such an individual tries to take in a wide swath of knowledge, there is only so much depth that one can gain in any one area (and all areas are specialized out the wazoo, nowadays). One may be able to go in depth on 2 or 3 subjects or micro-subjects, but there is certainly a point where one is going to be unable to fully follow the top journals of many disparate fields. That is just the limit of the beast that is knowledge.

With that said, just the acknowledgment that (almost) any individual is capable of being one very skilled chemist by the age of, say, 22, is already to cast doubt on our intuitions that genes and intelligence sets are somehow being appropriately tended to by the environments we set up around all (and any) individuals. Or that we even know how to generally speak about intelligence. Or that our schools and reflections about such subjects are anywhere close to the appropriate ballpark.

We could go on and make two more claims. The first I do not think most people argue for, but some surely do. The first is that as a society we, or the Europeans or the Koreans, have set up a fairly level playing field, and now such a field is sorting people through such (genetic) intelligence differences. That is unquestionably wrong, and it is wrong across the nation, within communities and even within families. But we could tone that down and say something more ordinary like, there is the possibility of creating an equal opportunity educational system that will in the end sort people by intelligence levels, so that those with more genetic intelligence gifts end up being the ones who are more knowledgeable and more skillful. I think there is good reason to think that the second claim may be near impossible as well, at least from our ground level.

In the end, anyone who thinks that we can shrug at the gross disparity between knowledge and skill attainment between individuals, or who even hints that such differences have a significant genetic component (other than as some trivial measure), must present some argument about where such differences exist. It is difficult for me to argue against the above tautologies. And as I see pretty much any other knowledge attainment as falling along similar lines, the question becomes how do we even begin thinking that radical environmental changes to all individual lives are not the first and foremost change that we should be arguing for. That is, we should be willing to setup the environment around every individual in our society so that they become (say) very good chemists. And again, by very good chemist here, I mean something like in the top 10,000 chemist in the world. One that is highly skilled and employable. Now, if genes come in, I may grant that due to genes some random individual may not be able to get into the cream of the crop, say in the top 100. But can they adequately perform the skills of an excellent chemist or those skills of our well-qualified doctors? Without a doubt. The argument that any given genetic repertoire (other than significant impairment) renders any individual incapable of such skill attainment is surely wrong. 

Furthermore, we are products of our genes and environment, given that its not in the genes, then it is in the environment, and later in the programming/brain of that individual as they respond more complexly to the environment. And there is much low hanging fruit where such environmental factors are concerned. Due diligence is probably the first step. 

Some other references: 

Bruce Waller, Against Moral Responsibility
Annette Lareau, Unequal Childhoods
Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, Social Construction of Reality
Stanislas Dehaene, Reading and the Brain

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